It seems now that almost every week there’s a story about sustainability, or Greenpeace criticizing one of a dozen data center operators for their intransigence with regard to reducing their carbon footprint.  Though it’s a little less than timely (being a few weeks after Greenpeace’s latest harangue about Apple’s Maiden, North Carolina, it’s still worth discussing and questioning Greenpeace’s logic and intent related to energy usage in data centers.  Of course, Apple, Facebook and Google are easy targets for Greenpeace just because they’re marquis technology companies that operate large scale internal- and external-facing IT infrastructures.  However, in this case, the problem with Greenpeace’s grading system is really two-fold: 1) it’s not based on confirmed design facts provided by Apple, but rather deduction from specious assumptions; and, 2) Greenpeace isn’t all that green itself.

Upon reading the Greenpeace report, it becomes abundantly clear that it likely wasn’t written or reviewed by anyone with a shred of IT experience.  The fact that two of the demands made in the report are myopic prove this (“Choose a renewable-powered local utility for its Oregon data centre, not buy renewable energy credits from coal-powered Pacific Power” and “Adopt a data centre siting policy that prioritises access to renewable energy for any future iCloud data centres.”).  Data center site selection considers well over 75 different factors.  This is very standard whether the developer is Apple, Facebook, Google, Digital Realty Trust, etc.  Most technology companies employ sustainability officers that are integral to the site selection and construction process, but the business drivers play a substantial and, sometimes, controlling role as to where the data center will be located.  Latency (or signal delay) is a primary factor that cannot be tolerated in serving one’s client base.  Furthermore, there are very few locations in the US where 100% renewable power is available.  In those areas, it may or may not be feasible to construct a data center. But back to the Greenpeace report for another minute…

The primary conclusion to which Greenpeace arrived is based not on fact, but the incorrect assumption that Apple will be using 81MW of power of which 62.1MW would be purchased from Coal-Heavy Duke Energy (this includes the 5MW of on-site generated power from the fuel-cell source).  Furthermore, Greenpeace is questioning Apple’s fuel source for the fuel-cells as being renewable as the combination is of natural and directed biogas.  Additionally, Greenpeace is critical of Apple’s potential arrangement to sell energy generated from the on-site solar panels and fuel-cells to Duke Energy.  This strikes me as incredibly narrow-minded and largely hypocritical. Isn’t the point of “greening” the environment to create less dependence on carbon-related fuels?  If Apple, or any other company, chooses to generate power and sell it back to the grid in exchange for the electricity it uses, isn’t that substitution helping our efforts to create more sustainable planet?

This also begs the question of whether or not carbon taxes are considered by Greenpeace to be useful?  I would assume that the concept of a carbon tax is one that would resonate with this organization; however, capping and trading energy or capping and trading carbon points should be just as interchangeable.  I wonder whether Greenpeace has thought this anomaly through?

Throughout the Greenpeace report there are numerous references to iCloud and Cloud in general.  However, no credit is given at all for the fact that Cloud-computing is one of the greatest influences today in reducing energy consumption.  Rather than use dedicated servers for single applications, those same servers, which are becoming much more energy efficient, are broken into 50 different virtual machines. Yet, nowhere in the report is there any mention of this.  And the instance of Cloud-computing is not isolated to Apple.  All major enterprises and IT companies are integrating this strategy into their operations.  Not only that, but most IT companies are experimenting with new low-power usage servers, more efficient blade designs, better water usage as a result of their interest in preserving the environment as well as to reduce the use of natural resources, electricity, using alternative energy sources  and reduce the oval cost of operations.  Facebook, Google and Amazon are all following suit by focusing on more conservation and experimentation with different design schemes aimed at achieving measureable results in this area.

So here are a few questions and challenges for Greenpeace, if there’s anyone from that organization’s reading this blog:

1) Since you’re questioning the transparency of those you choose to criticize, where is your data center located and what is the composition of energy used by your provider?

2) What are you doing to improve the energy yield from alternative fuel sources including solar panels, wind and fuel cells?

3) Despite the perceived risk associated with Nuclear power, where do you stand on this, since Nuclear is among the energy sources producing very low carbon dioxide emissions from their full life cycle?

Finally, it seems very odd to me that Greenpeace in its infinite wisdom operates a massive vessel, the Greenpeace Warrior III that isn’t environmentally friendly in the least.  Its hull is constructed of steel, not sustainable timber.  It is powered by huge diesel engines and sails that are completely useless.  Every winch on the ship is powered hydraulically by the diesels and they have a very cool helicopter in board.  What a bunch of hypocrites! When it serves their purposes, they’ll excuse themselves from being environmentally friendly.